Religion Leads Logically To Violence, But Atheism Doesn't--Richard Dawkins 

Richard Dawkins and John Lennox (both of them Oxford professors) debated Dawkins's The God Delusion in Birmingham, Alabama on October 3. I've been listening to the audio; there is also video available for download in three parts. I have to agree with some commenters on Dawkins's site: the format was badly flawed. I don't know whether Dawkins was aware of it coming in, nor would I venture to guess why it was done this way; but it was set up so that Lennox, the Christian, was able to provide rebuttals to Dawkins but not vice-versa. Dawkins became quite understandably frustrated. It's not that nothing useful was said--both parties were able to make some points strongly--but genuine give-and-take would have been more fair and more interesting. The participants did break out of the prescribed format and enter into real debate at about minute 75, which is the part I'd like to comment on. 

Dawkins expanded on a point from his book, saying that religion leads quite logically to violence and all kinds of horrors. He does not mean at all to say that every religious believer will take that path, but that religious ways of thinking invite us to do so (the emphasis is mine):

"I think there is a logical path from religion to doing terrible things.... There's a logical path that says, if you really, really, really believe that your God, Allah, whoever it is, wants you to do something--and you'll go to heaven, you'll go to Paradise if you do it--then it's possible for an entirely logical, rational person to do hideous things. I cannot conceive of a logical path that would lead one to say, 'Because I am an atheist, therefore it is rational for me to kill, or murder, or be cruel, or do some horrible thing.' I can easily see that there are plenty of individuals who happen to be atheists, maybe even individuals who have some other philosophy which incidentally happens to be associated with atheism, but there is no logical path. Those young men who bombed in the London subway and the buses, those 19 men who flew planes into various targets in the United States in September of 2001, they were not psychopaths, they were not downtrodden ignorant people; they were well-educated rational people who passionately believed they were right. They thought they were righteous, they thought they were good, by the lights of their religion they were good. The same thing could be said of the hideous things done by the Taliban.... These people believe deeply in what they are doing. And it follows logically, once you grant them the premise of their faith, then the terrible things that they do follow logically. The terrible things that Stalin did, did not follow from his atheism, they followed from something horrible within him.... You will not do terrible deeds because you are an atheist, not for rational reasons; you may well for very rational reasons do terrible things because you are religious. That's what faith is about."

To a great extent Dawkins is right: twisted beliefs will lead to twisted actions; and if one's twisted belief includes certainty of eternal reward for doing evil, then one will very likely do evil. It does follow logically. Religious can be very dangerous. This logical theorem is accompanied by way too much empirical proof.

His imagination has failed him, though, in not allowing him to conceive of a logical path from atheism to killing, murder, or cruelty. Here is that path, in very short form:
"I want to do it, I have the power to do it, and there's no ultimate reason I shouldn't do it."  

Nietzsche spoke of the "will to power" and the "over-man," both concepts flowing from his rejection of God. Hitler applied this Teutonic doctrine. Morality without God is generally a morality of consensus. It is characteristic of strong leaders and also of outcasts to care little about consensus; and caring little, they find perfect freedom to do as they will. So it is not that Stalin said, "Because I am an atheist, and atheism calls for the killing of millions, therefore I will kill." Rather it is that Stalin had "something horrible within him" (Dawkins's words, fully consonant with Scripture), and his atheism gave unrestrained freedom to that horrible something.

A fight broke out at a Cleveland school last week. The fight was about God. We don't know nearly enough about what happened there, but we do know that it was the student who did not believe in God who brought back a gun and shot four people before killing himself. The Columbine shooters tried to get Cassie Bernall to recant her faith in Christ--she refused to do it--just before they killed her. For the loner or the outcast, as well as the strong leader, there is a logical path in atheism: "I want to do it, I have the power to do it, and there's nothing that ultimately says I shouldn't do it." The logic is as clean as the logic of Dawkins's violent religious person.

And then what about violent religion? It certainly exists. Sociologically it's hard to tease out how much of this violence is religiously motivated, and how much of it is tribally-motivated with religion as the most convenient identifier of the tribe. Northern Ireland's strife seems much more readily explained under that theory than under a theory of pure religious motivation. Still, religion is implicated. It's another sign of the "something horrible within." Sometimes that "something horrible" takes on a religious expression. Jesus himself stood against that.

Dawkins has lifted out one aspect of religion for condemnation and ignored the rest. He focuses on the fact that many religions offer eternal rewards, while ignoring other beliefs held by various religions and the differences between those beliefs. Christianity in particular offers no eternal reward for doing harm to others. Some Christians, historically, have mistakenly thought so; but that is certainly nowhere to be found in the New Testament, the book about the One who told us to love our enemies. There are false religious beliefs, and they can lead to people doing violence. Islamist extremism is the most visible current example, but there are also white supremacists who call themselves Christians. Dawkins is right: this is bad. But genuine Christian morality teaches us to exercise power on behalf of justice and love, not violence or hatred. It is wrong for Dawkins to point only to one aspect of religious belief and make it function as the whole.

(Before closing I should probably make a nod in the direction of another flaw in Dawkins's argument: given his materialist worldview, how does he know that any acts at all are "hideous"? Upon what is this moralism founded? It's a relevant question and I expect comments about it, but we've been over it here before so I've chosen not to spend time on it now.) 

Posted: Wed - October 17, 2007 at 10:06 AM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by
Web Analytics Web Analytics